Croatia might be one of the most technically-gifted sides in Europe, but Luka Modrić and company will find it hard to qualify from a group made up of host Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon. Not only did Croatia have to make it the hard way by beating lowly Iceland in a playoff, it has yet to reach the last 16 since and impressive third-place finish at France ’98. The time has come for another big show from an underperforming nation, blessed with a number of skillful players.
The start does not look easy this time, either. Defeat in the daunting opener against host and tournament favorite Brazil on June 12, will put a lot of pressure on the Europeans to win the remaining games against Mexico and Cameroon. Although the Mexicans might not be as dangerous as some of the other Latin American sides, the players will be better suited to the climate and geography of Brazil. Cameroon is also used to playing in the tough conditions synonymous with African football. Much will also depend on how quickly new manager Niko Kovač can take on the role recently left by Igor Štimac.
Kovač’s only previous coaching role was when he managed his country in the Euro 2015 Under-21 finals, claiming four victories in as many games before he was called on to save the senior side’s qualifying campaign. Now he is working at a higher level with more pressure and so he has to work hard to control the big egos ensure qualification.
Real Madrid playmaker Modrić will have added pressure on him to deliver against Brazil, with Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandžukić serving a one-match ban for his red card against Iceland. Although the former Tottenham Hotspur man is not guaranteed a start for the Spaniards, he does produce when he plays in La Liga. His form in both domestic matches and in the Champions League have given Real boss Carlo Ancelotti a different dimension against tight defenses. Croatia will also be without veteran defender Josip Šimuni, who lost his appeal against a 10-match for making a fascist salute in November last year. Nevertheless, Croatia does have youth on its side. The talented 20-year-old central midfielder Mateo Kovacić shone during qualification, and 24-year-old defender Dejan Lovren has turned in some good performances for Southampton in the Premier League.
Although Brazil is expected to walk the group, with Mexico and Croatia toughing it out for the second qualifying spot, Cameroon will be looking to spring a surprise by taking out one of them. Of course, Cameroon has done it before, beating eventual finalists Argentina in the opening game of Italia ’90 before progressing to the quarter-final only to lose to England. If Cameroon does take another giant scalp, then the Mexico vs Croatia match will be all-important. Although Croatia will find it hard to qualify from the group, the expectation is still there.
World Cup Preview is a series providing commentary and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd